Several different formatting styles are used in academic writing, and the primary ones are the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Languages Association (MLA), Chicago, and Harvard. These styles each have unique characteristics. The relative ease of MLA renders it useful for acquainting students with basic style discipline, while Chicago, with its emphasis on footnotes, is typically preferred by historians (Bean 103). APA may be said to occupy a middle ground between the strict formality of Chicago and the less rigorous demands of MLA, even as APA most mirrors MLA. Just as each style has its own rules, so too does each evolve in terms of new editions in order to accommodate changes in sourcing and scholarship parameters. However, and as will be seen in the following analysis of MLA, all styles exist to reinforce one academic discipline, that of properly acknowledging where information and/or ideas were retrieved by the writer.
MLA is favored for subjects in the realms of the humanities (Bean 103), likely due to the noted ease of usage. This is still a format requiring adherence to its demands, but it generally emphasizes a “readability” and flow to a paper, with less in the way of formal structure. For example, APA requires a full title page listing the student’s name and school information, whereas MLA sets this information within the upper left corner of the first page of text. APA and MLA share the requirement of a running header, but MLA asks only for the student’s name and the page number, while APA demands an abbreviation of the paper’s title (Purdue OWL). The mechanics of MLA further demand one-inch margins for all pages, double spacing in the text, and paragraph indents of half an inch or five spaces. Consistent with its formatting as being less complicated or rigorous, MLA allows for options in subject headings. The paper title is not set in bold or italic print, but is simply spaced in the center of the first page. Subheadings are placed to the left, but these may be set in a number of ways. Italics may be used to mark the subheading as such, or the writer may employ a different font. A 12 point type is required and Times New Roman font is typically preferred, but other fonts may be used, provided they are employed consistently (Purdue OWL). It is worth reiterating that the main distinction of MLA is its purpose as a more accessible style, and one less complicated to follow.
If MLA is relatively simple to use, however, it reflects the same demands regarding citations of other styles. It may be said that the primary purpose of teaching students to write within the confines of a formatting discipline is to enforce the need for citations. Such disciplines exist, in fact, to protect the integrity of academic writing and scholarship in general. The failure to properly note from whom and where information is taken is a serious breach of protocols, if not ethics. On a pragmatic level, it is irresponsible in terms of basic craft; a lack of citation where necessary presents an untrue proposition, in that the writer is the source of the information or ideas. In legal terms, this is plagiarism, or the appropriating of the work of others presented as original. Even when this occurs unintentionally, the effects are the same. The writer loses essential credibility, and this often translates to students receiving failing grades or facing possible expulsion from the school (Purdue OWL). From an ethical standpoint, the practice of plagiarism is consistently reviled. Even when the act is not intended, it indicates an unacceptably poor level of scholarship and/or effort. When citing is not done, the student is not making the effort to recognize that the idea they are presenting is in fact based on an idea taken elsewhere. When plagiarism is the actual goal, the consequences may be more dramatic than expulsion from school and the writer may be subject to legal proceedings. Proper citation is, in a word, essential for any academic writing in both practical and ethical terms.
This being the case, it is then all the more advantageous that MLA renders correct citing a relatively simple matter. The process is one also always being amended to keep pace with changes in academic elements, and variations on the rules are often the result of the annual MLA conventions held to determine, among other things, the state of the style (MLA). To begin with, in-text citations are as basic as may be, requiring only that the author or source name and page number (when applicable) follow the quotation or paraphrase in parentheses. There is a separate page following the paper that then lists the “works cited,” and alphabetically by author’s last name. Again, MLA here reflects simplicity; the author and title are offered, along with the place of publication and publisher’s identity, followed by the date. Variations have been created to accommodate a virtually unlimited arena of sources. Films, for instance, are listed with the title first, and then the director’s and performers’ names, followed by the producer/studio and date. A painting adheres more to the form for a book, with the artist’s name first and the museum or place of exhibition where the book’s publisher would appear (Purdue OWL).
Perhaps most importantly, however, MLA adapts to media as it increasingly influences academic writing. With the understanding that many of today’s sources are accessed online, MLA now requires that full citations identify the medium, as in print for a book or “web” for a source retrieved from the Internet (Guffey, Loewy 312). Adaptation has also occurred in terms of the actual online address. Originally, MLA required that web sites be presented in the works listing, but this is now optional (Purdue Owl), provided the student also sets out the date on which the source was accessed. There is the awareness that web site addresses are highly subject to change, so the student is essentially encouraged to determine the appropriateness of adding this information. This option, in fact, reflects the greater flexibility in all MLA citation. That is to say, the guiding principle is to supply as much relevant information as to the source as possible, with the understanding that certain sources offer little. This principle then reinforces how MLA, along with the other formats, primarily exists to ensure that plagiarism does not occur. Linked to this is the incentive to teach the student the processes by which sources are used correctly to validate or inspire original work.
Bean, J. C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Print.
Guffey, M. E., & Loewy, D. Essentials of Business Communication. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.
Modern Language Association (MLA). About the MLA, 2013. Web. 4 May 2013. <http://www.mla.org/about>
Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). MLA Overview and Workshop, 2013. Web. 4 May 2013.